October 4, 2019; Hyperallergic
San Francisco Bay Area communities know little about a longtime population in their midst: the residents of San Quentin State Prison. The prison houses over 4,000 inmates, including 700 men on death row, who essentially became invisible to the public when the prison’s bars slammed behind them. The San Quentin Project: Nigel Poor and the Men of San Quentin State Prison, installed at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA), makes San Quentin’s history, culture, and inhabitants visible to the outside world.
San Quentin’s residents are already known for achieving success in sharing their stories. The San Quentin News, a newsletter written, edited, and produced by people in the prison, has been operating on and off for nearly a century.
This exhibition contains photographs taken by corrections officers from the 1930s to ’80s, onto which current inmates have annotated their thoughts, experiences, and insights. The show also includes some anonymous images taken by people currently in the prison. The results are as stunning as they are extraordinary, with the capacity to evoke profound empathy in viewers.
In an interview for Hyperallergic, reporter Bridget Quinn asked if artist Nigel Poor considers such notations a kind of art. “Yes, those pieces are beautiful creations that honor the original intent of the photograph while comingling it with markings and notes that allow the viewer to reconsider the photograph’s meaning,” Poor responded. “And they also become an autobiography of the person who interacted with the image—a kind of unintended collaboration.”
Poor co-curated the exhibition with former inmate Earlonne Woods. Poor and Woods had already been collaborating on Ear Hustle, a podcast whose name refers in prison slang to “being nosy.” Listeners can eavesdrop on everyday life in prison. Ear Hustle’s acclaim contributed to then-California governor Jerry Brown’s commutation of Woods’ life 31-year-to-life sentence. Woods had already spent 21 years at San Quentin.
The project has been years in the making. In 2011, Poor was a California State art professor and volunteer teacher for the Prison University Project when a prison official showed her nine bankers’ boxes that were stored under his desk. In 2012, Poor used those images and asked inmates to map their thoughts, insights, and experiences directly on the photographs. For example,
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On an image of a Native American pow wow dancer, George “Mesro” Coles-El has drawn arrows to background chimneys with no smoke, noting, “This is not a work day,” while another arrow points to a tower: “Gunner may be watching while all by himself.” But also, next to the dancer, “His dance seems heedless of location and speaks of freedom.”
In January 2019, Terry Gross interviewed Poor and Woods. Poor talks about her experience behind bars getting know prison inmates:
One of the things that I’ve really taken away from being in prison is that I’ve gotten an incredible glimpse into what it means to be a man and what men deal with. And it has made me—it has made me care about men so much more. I mean, I guess I had a kind of low estimation of men and what they were like. And so being in prison has just really altered that. And that surprised me greatly. So I think I understand more the complexity and the pressures and inside I get to see men relating in very heartfelt ways. I get to see how they express love and tenderness and fear and frustration and how they posture and what’s behind that.
A lot of people, particularly in law enforcement, want to look at the crime only, and that’s really the big debate. Can people change? Should we recognize the change, or once you did the act, that’s who you are—your essence, your identity—and never to be considered? So I think that’s very damaging. It destroys hope, and it violates the principle that redemption is at the essence of what it is to be human.
Prison arts programs around the country are bringing public awareness to this dehumanization and debunking stereotypes. Connecticut’s Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum recently produced the exhibition How Art Changed the Prison: The Work of CPA’s Prison Art’s program. This summer, L.A. Craft Contemporary Museum produced the exhibition On The Inside, featured the artwork of LGBTQ inmates.
As the country’s lawmakers consider the prison reform’s future, exhibitions give inmates a public vehicle to influence the narrative, and force the public to humanize the conversation.—Meredith Betz